Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My intern report

Recently, I posted the reflections of Cyndy my summer book repair intern. What follows is my own reflections on leading an internship.

Leading an internship has been the most rewarding experience of my career. I’ve done a lot of different things in my library work. I’ve dressed up as the Cat in the Hat (twice), I’ve travelled the state visiting interesting collections and cataloging their newspapers, I’ve taught workshops and library school courses, but leading an internship has been the most satisfying experience. I also think it has been the most effective educational experience I’ve participated in.

The two internships I’ve lead have been focused around learning and practicing skills. With Jolien, my first intern we worked on paper conservation, and with Cyndy, book repair. The interns came in with some theoretical knowledge, but very little hands-on experience. My goal was to provide them an experience of progressive learning and plenty of opportunities to practice, practice, and practice again.

Cyndy starting to sew a text block.
Cyndy contacted me this spring and expressed a desire to do an internship. The first thing that came to mind was a conservation internship and that felt like it would require more of me than I was able to offer. Then it occurred to me that what I really needed help with was repairing general collection materials, and that, coming in with no experience, what I thought Cyndy really needed to learn was good basic book repair, so I offered her an internship in basic book repair. 

I was glad for the chance to lead a book repair internship because I think there is a need for good basic repair skills and it would give me the opportunity to lead an intern in doing a common treatment over and over again. I think this repetition is important.

As Cyndy mentioned in her report, I took note early that she was a quilter. I saw this as a good sign. Jolien had previous experience making jewelry. Both of them had plenty of experience consciously and concisely manipulating physical materials. I’ve taught classes to people who had virtually no crafting experience, and it sometimes showed with clumsy, klutzy work. Both interns showed a quick and natural ability to explore and understand the tools and materials they worked with.

Nothing helps me understand my craft like teaching it to someone else. One of my best learning experiences for me was after I had completed a repair technique that Cyndy had done several times she looked at my repaired book and asked “Why does yours look better than mine?” I’ve been repairing books for around 15 years, I should hope mine looks better than a novice, but understanding why it looks better means I need to go back and pay attention to the details of what I am doing. I repair books with my hands and my eyes; my brain’s involvement tends to be more subconscious. Being asked why my repairs are more successful meant I had to step back and understand and explain what it was I was doing, and then observe more closely what she was doing. 

I think a key to the success of Cyndy’s training was repetition. She did a few techniques over and over again. This is the kind of important learning experience that can’t happen in workshops or university courses. The great thing about repetition in book repair is you eventually learn it’s not really repetition as you notice that every book presents nuanced differences from every other book you’ve worked on.  One other thing repetition helps build is confidence. Both Jolien and Cyndy initially approached the items or techniques I ask them to carry-out with some trepidation – which is appropriate – but is also not conducive to good work. Repetition builds up confidence and with that the work flows better and is cleaner.
Jolien working on paper mending.

Once the intern has developed some skill and confidence I’ll naturally give them more freedom in making decisions and carrying out treatments. I am quite content to stand back and watch an intern struggle and even fail (I’ll not let irreparable harm come to our materials but I may let them do something which I must later undo.) My reason for doing this is not because I’m cruel, but because I know that struggling and failure can teach much more than if I were to quickly swoop in and show them the correct way to do it. 

Similarly, upon completion of many of her repairs, I would ask Cyndy to look over her work and tell me what she thinks worked about the repair, what didn’t, and what she might do differently next time.
With both internships, the times working together were often filled with discussion about the broader preservation world talking about such things as preferred vendors, professional organizations, interesting people, books, and other resources, and other library and non-library topics. While I’ve been fortunate to have very engaging interns who have been wonderful to visit with, I also see this banter as helping the intern become aware of how the work they are doing now fits into the larger library preservation world.

I certainly hope to have more interns in the future, and I encourage others to be open to take on an intern. It can be a truly rewarding experience for all involved.


  1. I agree that taking interns is important and a good way to test your assumptions and pay attention to what you are doing (because you have to show them how to do it). I also think we owe it to the profession to teach people proper conservation techniques and give them opportunities.

    Can I ask if these were paid internships that you offered? If so, do you have tips on how to get your admins to put resources towards interns rather than students assistants?

  2. They were unpaid internships. These internships have not been planned by the Library. In both instances I was asked by someone outside the library to lead an internship, and I cleared this with my supervisors. With the success these internships have been, I am hoping to make it a more a more formalized program where I/the library can plan and offer internships. I would love to see them funded but I expect more success with finding funding from our Library Foundation, than from Library Administration.

  3. I think one of the best ways to challenge yourself is to teach your craft to someone else. It's funny, but there were things you told me about the book repair process that I didn't really register until after I had tried the process multiple times. The other very valuable thing was to just watch you work. When you were repairing something across the table from me, I tried to see how you manipulated the tools and the materials. How do you build that "watching" into the learning process.

  4. A few days after writing this I heard from Jolien, my first intern, and she reported she had just begun a textile conservation program in Belgium. She was accepted into the program based largely on her internship report - an incredibly well-illustrated 200 or so page report she bound herself, with my instruction. It's nice to know that my work with her helped her progress in the profession.